Operation On-Your-Own

Earl Hadley

October 18, 2005

Earl Hadley is education coordinator for the Campaign for America's Future.

Conservatives have some nerve. Only a group with a misplaced sense of entitlement would try to push $70 billion in tax cuts through Congress, while cutting anywhere from tens to hundreds of billions in dollars from programs that assist working and middle-class families. The misplaced priorities of conservatives is not news, but their willingness to use the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina as a justification for these program cuts takes their outrageous and calculated behavior to another level.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, conservatives had $70 billion in tax cuts, along with $35 billion in program cuts, lined up for two filibuster-proof votes. After Katrina, to their dismay, conservatives were forced to postpone these votes, as well as a vote on repealing the estate tax.  The logic was pretty obvious: With hundreds of thousands of people struggling to find health care, employment, schooling and housing, it wasn’t the best time to push through tax breaks for the wealthy, while cutting health care, nutrition and other forms of assistance.  But conservatives were not ready to throw in the towel; they were merely waiting for the right moment to reassert their agenda. They were also growing increasingly angry about the thought of the federal government taking a leadership role, financially, in rebuilding of the Gulf Coast.

In late September, the Republican Study Committee (RSC), made up of nearly 100 conservative members of the House, figured they had a strategy to pay for Gulf Coast reconstruction and cut programs—they would use one to justify the other. The RSC released "Operation Offset," which calls for $343 billion in cuts to programs for low-income families, claiming these cuts were needed to pay for Katrina recovery efforts.  The Boston Globe quotes chairman of the RSC Mike Pence, R-Ind., as saying: ''I am not prepared to support additional relief if that means piling debt on our children and grandchildren.  Our analysis suggests that there is more than enough room for cuts in the federal budget to pay for Katrina." 

Initially, the Republican leadership’s response to this proposal was muted, but this quickly changed after President Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers and the subsequent conservative fire storm.  Republicans in Washington, D.C., heard the conservative outrage and began seeking ways to appease their small-government base.  President Bush said Congress should look to the $20 billion in program cuts he proposed in his most recent budget.  You know how the old saying goes…if you can’t give them a proven anti-choice/affirmative action hating judge, you can at least gut some of the programs that help people achieve academically and economically.  Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and speaker of the House, followed Bush’s lead and called for upping the initial $35 billion in programs cuts to $50 billion, as well as a two percent across-the-board cut. Hastert’s rationale, as reported by Congressional Quarterly, was: “Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have dealt a severe blow to our nation, both in terms of human and economic losses.  We can and will recover, but it will require some serious belt-tightening throughout the federal government.” 

On the RSC’s website, Pence responded happily to Hastert’s support for program cuts, but made clear that more were needed:

And so I rise today to say on behalf of House conservatives, we are pleased but not content, we are encouraged but not satisfied.  For while the debate has been difficult at times, the work of cutting government spending to offset the extraordinary cost of Hurricane Katrina will be harder still…Let us have the courage to make the tough choices to find the means to pay for the cost of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath through reductions in government spending.

Tough choices? Analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) shows that those who claim spending cuts are needed to finance the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast—or to protect our grandchildren from mountains of debt—are playing cynical politics. The Center points out that the initial Republican plan of $35 billion in program cuts, along with $70 billion in tax cuts, actually increases the budget deficit.  As far as paying for rebuilding the Gulf Coast, CBPP points out that in 2005 alone the lost revenue from the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts would more than cover reconstruction estimates. 

It seems pretty straightforward that if one’s goal is to assist families with health care, employment and education in a “fiscally responsible” manner, tax breaks should be repealed before enacting cuts to the very programs these families need.  I guess the tough choice for conservatives is putting post-Katrina reconstruction, programs for working and middle-class families, and reducing the deficit ahead of tax breaks.  But the choice is not difficult for the average citizen.  When anyone takes a look at the cuts actually being proposed, it becomes pretty clear that the conservative tax and program proposals must be rejected.  Their recommendations include cuts to Medicaid, the National School Lunch Program, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicare, legal services to low-income families and food stamps, as well as increasing the cost of taking out a student loan.  

So in the name of rebuilding the Gulf Coast, conservatives want to cut health care, education and community development efforts, while giving tax breaks to the wealthy. As The New York Times points out: “Much of this is transparent posturing for next year's elections. The same lawmakers who cheered on President Bush's reckless tax cuts for the affluent, killing the surpluses and creating mammoth debt, are trying to transform themselves into responsible budgeteers.”

This type of immoral politics can not be allowed to continue.  In addition to being morally reprehensible, the conservative tax/program cut plan doesn’t reflect American values.  A recent survey conducted for the Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities  showed that 67 percent of the respondents felt that this plan reflected the wrong priorities for the country and 71 percent were opposed to the proposed cuts.  Starting this week, there will be votes on the conservative tax and program cut agenda.  Progressive organizations are gearing up to make sure that the temporary September postponement of the conservative agenda becomes permanent. In the process, we need to highlight the values imbedded in their plan, so that the nation clearly sees that conservatives are more concerned with protecting the wealthy than with helping working and middle-class families—much less rebuilding the Gulf Coast.